Pandemic germinates Master Gardener support for nonprofits, health care workers

June 11, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When the COVID-19 pandemic caused Penn State Master Gardeners across Pennsylvania to cancel annual plant-sale fundraisers and other gardening events this spring, they were left with thousands of vegetable and ornamental plants that needed good homes.

Turning "lemons into lemonade," Master Gardeners made their local communities the beneficiaries of this glut of unsold plants, donating them to various nonprofit groups, school programs and other organizations, according to Nancy Knauss, state coordinator of the Master Gardener program, which is administered by Penn State Extension.

"Some county Master Gardener programs spent months growing plants for these fundraising events, and others had ordered plants from local greenhouses," Knauss said. "With the plant sales being cancelled, Master Gardeners across the state reached out to local nonprofit organizations to donate the plants that would have been sold at their fundraisers. In total, 8,420 vegetables, herbs and annuals, 1,000 pounds of seed potatoes, 745 seed packets, and 917 hanging baskets were donated to food pantries, community gardens, churches, hospitals and senior living communities."

In Delaware County, Master Gardeners donated almost 1,000 vegetable plants — including cabbage, kale, collards, broccoli, swiss chard and lettuce — to the Chester Eastside Food Pantry and the Chester Eastside After School Program. The after-school program will plant the vegetables in raised garden beds in its community garden, with plans to hold a virtual gardening class with the children in the coming months.

Master Gardeners in Philadelphia County donated 2,000 vegetables and herbs propagated for their Garden Day and Plant Sale to eight community gardens across Philadelphia.

"We wanted to reach out to underserved communities and those experiencing high levels of food insecurity to be sure they have plants for their community gardens," said Marty Hudson, a Master Gardener and one of the plant sale organizers. "Master Gardeners propagated all these plants themselves, and we're excited to know even more people will enjoy them through the community gardens."

Master Gardener HMC plant donation flowers

Colorful hanging baskets purchased through a fundraising campaign by the Penn State Extension Master Gardener program wait to be chosen by health care workers at Milton S. Hershey Medical Center in Hershey.

IMAGE: Jason Plotkin

The spring also was made a little brighter for front-line health care workers thanks to the state Master Gardener program, which launched a campaign to raise funds to provide plants to staff helping to fight COVID-19 at three Penn State Health facilities: Milton S. Hershey Medical Center in Hershey, Lime Spring Outpatient Center in Lancaster and St. Joseph Medical Center in Reading.

"Through the generosity of Master Gardeners and community members, we raised $7,600, which was used to purchase 800 colorful hanging baskets that were distributed as a thank you to the dedicated health care workers," Knauss said. "Simultaneously, these purchases supported green-industry businesses that have been impacted economically by the pandemic."

The turnout for the plant giveaway was "phenomenal," according to Erin Harding, director of radiation oncology and hematology-oncology operations at Hershey Medical Center, who helped coordinate the distribution.

"There were so many different, beautiful varieties that it made it difficult for everyone to choose," Harding said. "It was a pure joy to see the happiness these flowers brought to our employees. I was grateful to be a part of the experience."

Knauss noted that Master Gardeners in Lackawanna and Butler counties also raised funds to purchase plants to donate to those impacted by the pandemic.

Penn State Master Gardeners are volunteers who support the outreach mission of Penn State Extension by utilizing unbiased, research-based information to inform local communities on best practices in sustainable horticulture and environmental stewardship. In exchange for horticultural training from Penn State, Master Gardeners educate the public by answering questions, speaking to groups, writing gardening articles, working with youth, establishing and maintaining demonstration gardens, and participating in other related activities.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated June 18, 2020